Blackveil, p.1Kristen Britain
Table of Contents
ABOUT THE GOLD HUNTER
A HOWLING IN THE WOODS
OF CIRCLES AND FORM
OF SHADOWS AND ETIQUETTE
THEIR MYSTERIOUS WAYS
A GOOD TURN
PEARLS AND BONES
ON THE ROOF
STATIONERY AND GOLD INK
INVITATION AND A MULE CART
MAD QUEEN ODDACIOUS
THE LOOKING MASK
LADY ESTORA’S MASQUE
THE KING’S VISION
ADVICE AND BLESSINGS
THE MELODY OF THE WALL
TOWER OF THE EARTH
A PICNIC BASKET OF VIPERS
ESTRAL AND ALTON
AMBERHILL’S VOYAGE BEGINS
IN THE BEST INTEREST OF THE REALM
THE LIGHTED PATH
A PIECE OF TIME
RETURN TO TOWER OF THE EARTH
’WARE THE SLEEPER
THE QUEEN’S RIDERS
TALES OF THE SEA KINGS
DAYS OF GRAY
CREATURES OF KANMORHAN VANE
THE ELETIANS’ TASK
HER COUSIN UNMASKED
RITUAL AND WAKENING
SHEDDING BLOOD FOR THE REALM
HER PARTICULAR SKILLS
SPIRALS AND VOICES
LADY OF LIGHT
THE POTENT SNARL
THE SHADOW OF LIGHT
A FACE IN THE FIRE
GOD AND A MIRACLE
THE CHOSEN MASK
AN AWKWARD SITUATION
KING AND QUEEN
RETREAT AND RESOLVE
THEIR SEPARATE WAYS
ALSO BY KRISTEN BRITAIN:
First Rider’s Call
The High King’s Tomb
Copyright © 2011 by Kristen Britain.
All Rights Reserved.
DAW Book Collectors No. 1535.
DAW Books are distributed by Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
All characters and events in this book are fictitious.
Any resemblance to persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.
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First printing, February 2011
DAW TRADEMARK REGISTERED U.S. PAT. AND TM. OFF. AND FOREIGN COUNTRIES —MARCA REGISTRADA HECHO EN U.S.A.
eISBN : 978-1-101-47556-0
My thanks for the support, feedback, and many memorable Wednesday evenings at Darthia Farm goes to the Peninsulans: Annaliese (of Greywood) Jakimides, Elizabeth Noyes, Melinda Rice (OSSC), and Cynthia Thayer.
As always, thanks to team DAW for all they do to publish terrific books, especially my editor, Betsy Wollheim.
Thank you also to my agents Anna Ghosh and Danny Baror for helping to get my books out into the world.
My thanks to Ruth Stuart and Jill Shultz for providing comments and/or suggestions on certain aspects of the story. Thank you to Leila Saad for the use of her Italian carnival mask!
Thank you to Roger Czerneda for designing the all-new www.kristenbritain.com site and entertaining me with assorted apple flingings. And of course to his wonderful significant other, Julie, for her continuing encouragement and peach muffins.
I am always grateful for the existence of Acadia National Park for providing so much inspiration and mental and physical retreat over the years. Likewise for the music of Enya, Moya Brennan, Tingstad & Rumbel, and others that is often serene backdrop to my writing.
Finally, I always mention my four-legged buddies here because they mean so much to me and are generally great writer companions. Sadly, my last feline muse, Percy, a.k.a. Silly Orange Boy, passed away during the writing of this book, which is in part dedicated to him. He will never be forgotten.
As for Gryphon? Terriers to the fore! Want cookies!
For my sister, Sheri Flanigan.
“Remember, we are all prey here.”
As one, Grandmother’s retainers glanced down at the puddle of blood soaking into the duff of the forest floor. It was all that remained of Regin.
“Do not step outside the wards,” Grandmother said, “where I cannot protect you.”
As if to augment her words, a bestial cry rang out from the forest. Sarat whimpered, and the others shifted uneasily.
Grandmother said some appropriate words in memory of Regin. He’d been a good, strong porter, always helpful with camp and obedient to her every wish and devout in the ways of Second Empire. During their break, he had left them to relieve himself. By necessity, the warding Grandmother set when they were stopped for a mere break was not great in circumference. Regin had taken but a couple steps too many past its protection. They heard his scream, its sharp cutoff, and he was gone.
Blackveil Forest was dangerous. Perhaps the most dangerous place on Earth. Grandmother frequently reminded her people of the forest’s treachery, but Regin proved that a moment of inattention could be one’s last. A harsh lesson to them all.
It did not help anyone’s flagging spirits that they were lost. Again.
Grandmother pulled her hood up against the unceasing drizzle. It was late winter, but snow never seemed to reach the ground here. It was as if the whiteness of snow was too pure, too clean, to exist within the darkness of the forest. The drizzle seeped through the canopy of crooked tree boughs and matted clumps of pine needles, and anything that dwelled here lived in perpetual dusk. At night, the blackness was total.
Blackveil was the product of conquest and defeat. Long ago, Grandmother’s ancestors, led by Mornhavo
The first land to fall to the empire was the Eletian realm of Argenthyne, which covered the whole of a peninsula that bordered Ullem Bay to the east. Mornhavon made it his capital and renamed it Mornhavonia. At first his campaigns to quash rebellion and dominate the New Lands went well, but then supplies and reinforcements stopped coming from the empire.
Abandoned, with dwindling forces and many enemies arrayed against him, Mornhavon fell in defeat.
The Sacoridians then walled off the peninsula, trapping within the residue of darkness left behind by Mornhavon. The perversions he created with the art festered here for a millennium. The forest rotted amid etherea defiled by the use of the black arts during the war, gripping the land and spreading like a disease; ignored, neglected, and forgotten, until an Eletian coveting the residual magical power of the forest breached the D’Yer Wall three years ago.
Their journey through the forest was not only dangerous, but toilsome. They attempted to follow an ancient road of upheaved cobblestones. Sometimes it vanished into bogs or was swallowed by masses of thorny undergrowth. Patiently they sought ways around the obstructions and more than once found themselves led astray along remnants of side roads, or following paths toward traps set by wily predators.
This time an impenetrable thicket of scrubby trees, exhibiting wicked daggerlike thorns, had blocked the road and sent them off course. During trials such as these, Grandmother began to believe their situation hopeless, for she could not even consult the sun or stars for direction in this cloaked, shadowed place. She thought they’d die, forever lost in the tangled wilderness of the forest. She assumed they might yet. Their chances of survival, even if they found their way back to the road, were not good.
She was careful never to convey her doubts to the others. She could not. She must hold them together. They expressed complete faith in her, believed she would bring them through this. But if she fell apart, they’d fall apart, too, so she maintained a facade of confidence, even though it was a lie.
She gazed upon her weary retainers. There were only five of them now. Five, plus her true granddaughter, Lala, who sat upon a slimy log playing string games. Lala never issued any complaint, remained implacable as ever, trusting in her grandmother.
To find the road again, Grandmother would have to use the art, and do so before Regin’s death, and fear, had a chance to grip her people. From the basket she carried over her wrist, she removed a skein of red yarn and cut a length of it with a knife that hung from her belt. Her fingers were cold and stiff, but moved nimbly to tie knots, and as she did so, she spoke words of power.
In Blackveil, she was cautious when it came to using the art. The etherea of the place was unstable, tainted, and apt to warp even the simplest spell. She’d discovered this the hard way when she tried to ignite an ordinary campfire with a touch of power to the kindling. A tree beside her exploded into flame, almost torching her skirts. Fortunately the forest was so damp the blaze did not spread to a full-scale forest fire, but after that, she did not draw upon magic except when needed for wardings and wayfinding, and even then it was reluctantly.
When she finished tying the knots, she breathed on them, and they tightened of their own volition, flexing and melding together into a single mass that transformed into a luminous red salamander perched on her palm. Her people, she knew, still only saw a snarled wad of yarn.
“Find the road,” she commanded the salamander, for it was a compass.
It gazed at her with eyes of coal and lashed its serpentine tail this way and that until it settled on a direction, pointing the way with its tail. The others probably saw nothing more than a loose end of yarn lifting in an air current.
“We must carry on,” Grandmother said to her people. “We must continue our journey. Regin would wish it.”
Swiftly they took up their packs, one or two with tears in their eyes. They redistributed Regin’s burden, setting aside personal items of his they could not use. Grandmother then turned, stepping carefully through the forest, following the direction indicated by the magic salamander’s tail.
In a moment Lala was there beside her, grasping her free hand. Grandmother smiled down at her. Lala gave her the strength to carry on, as did her conviction that the empire must rise again.
After an hour or two of bushwhacking through undergrowth and wading through muddy, sluggish streams, they found the road. The salamander had led them true. They all cried out their thanks to God and Grandmother. Grandmother then released the salamander to the wind, and it vanished in a quick, brilliant spark. Only when she stood firmly upon the wet, mossy cobblestones of the road did she close her eyes and loose a sigh of relief.
Her relief turned to a cry of joy when the shifting of mist unveiled a huge, stone figure ahead of them. The statue, carved in the likeness of Mornhavon the Great, marked the joining of the Circle of the Ways. The salamander, it turned out, had led them better than true.
The roads they traversed were not built by the Arcosians, but by the Eletians of Argenthyne long before Mornhavon’s arrival. When Grandmother and her little group left Sacoridia by passing through the breach in the D’Yer Wall into the forest, they followed the Avenue of Light, the main artery heading south to the center of the peninsula. There it terminated at the Circle of the Ways.
In the chronicles of Grandmother’s people were maps of the peninsula and the Eletian roads. Apparently Eletians rarely built in straight lines, for the Circle was indeed a circle, and from it spun six main roads, including the Avenue of Light, that tailed off in graceful spirals where once there were major settlements. Her ancestors had not straightened the roads. Perhaps with the Long War raging, they hadn’t the resources.
“Here we shall pass the night,” Grandmother announced. After the day’s exertions and loss, they needed rest, time to collect themselves and prepare for the next leg of their journey, which was to follow the eastern half of the Circle toward the south. They’d bypass the junction of Way of the Dawn and continue to Way of the Moon.
Yes, they would spend the night beneath the statue that to her was like a guardian. Mornhavon: strong, heroic, the heir to an empire, his gaze stern and looking outward toward the Avenue of Light, with shield and sword at hand and hair flowing back from his face. His boot crushed the bodies of his enemies, the faces of those souls contorted in agony. According to the chronicles, each junction of the Circle had such a statue to greet travelers and to remind them of who ruled here.
The pedestal had once held some other statue, something Eletian. Whatever it was, it was toppled and replaced long ago, as well it should have been.
The statue filled Grandmother with pride, never mind Mornhavon’s nose, and most of the sword, had crumbled away, and the stone was darkened with moss and lichens, vines creeping up his legs.
Mornhavon may have been defeated, but that did not mean he hadn’t fought valiantly, despite great adversity. No one knew why Arcosia abandoned him, and perhaps they never would, but Second Empire lived to resurrect the ideals of Mornhavon and the empire, to continue the conquest and make it succeed.
We will make things right, Grandmother promised the statue. I shall see to it.
Setting up camp was a well-practiced routine, though now they had to attend to Regin’s duties as well. Deglin attempted to build a fire with the sodden wood collected from around them. He did carry a faggot of dry kindling, which he used sparingly. He struck steel to flint with a resolute expression on his face, for he knew Grandmother was reluctant to help after what happened last time. She did not doubt his efforts would prove successful, and she looked forward to the warmth of the resulting fire that would chase the damp chill from her bones.
Griz and Cole set up their tent shelter. The oiled canvas could not dry o
Min and Sarat sorted out pots and pans, and discussed what supper would be. Either a thin stew, or gruel. They, too, must be careful with their stores, for much of the vegetation in the forest was poisonous, and the creatures too dangerous to hunt.
With these reassuring and accustomed chores taking place beneath the statue, Grandmother focused on her own task, which was to set wards in a perimeter around the campsite. She removed small balls of snarled yarn from her basket: red, indigo, sky blue, and brown.
She placed them in a wide circle around their camp, murmuring a word of command as she did so. Each glowed briefly, then faded. When all were in place, she shouted, “Protect!” The forest rippled around them as though viewed through water, then stilled, all appearing normal. The eyes of wild creatures might glow yellow and green around them in the night, but nothing would pass the invisible barrier she had created. At least, nothing had thus far.
Weary beyond belief, Grandmother hobbled over to the statue and sat at its base, watching her retainers continue with their duties, not really taking any of it in or listening to their chatter. Lala sat beside her and leaned into her. Grandmother put her arm around the child. “Not an easy journey for little girls or old women, eh?” she murmured.
Lala did not answer, for she never spoke. Grandmother stroked her damp hair. “It will be worth it,” she said. “This journey, even Regin’s passing. He died for a just cause. We shall awaken the Sleepers as God instructed, and they will be the weapon that allows Second Empire to rise up and claim what is ours. Our legacy.”
Yes, the time had come. Colonel Birch would be organizing their people on the other side of the wall, building their army, while she raised a weapon that would shatter the Eletians and terrorize all of Second Empire’s enemies.
Blackveil by Kristen Britain / Fantasy / Actions & Adventure / Young Adult have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes